Mary Magdalene as a Renewed Feminist Icon: Representations in the Christian Tradition as a Resource for Contemporary Liberation Theology
Mary Magdalene remains prevalent within Christianity and popular culture. A mysterious and enigmatic figure, she continues to capture people’s imagination as ‘a mix of lust, loyalty, belief, prostitution, repentance, beauty, madness, and sainthood’ (Shaberg. 2004. P.9). Mary Magdalene’s complexity is in no small part due to the ambiguity and controversy of her various representations. Her continual and varied presence within the Christian tradition demonstrates her resistance to attempts, made by various patriarchal structures such as the Bible, Hebrew society, the early church, and medieval church and society, to diminish her importance. She resists such attempts by retaining her role as a close, learned and authoritative disciple and apostle to Jesus. This essay will look at three representations of Mary Magdalene from different Christian traditions: the canonical gospels, the Gospel of Mary and medieval legends. I will then attempt to displace the patriarchal structures which have tried to suppress her role, to extract her resistant and persistent character traits. Around the roles highlighted in this essay, Mary Magdalene can then be reconstructed by feminist theologies of liberation to provide a leadership figure for women who are oppressed by today’s patriarchal structures.Following Fiorenza’s (1992) methodology of feminist historical reconstruction, I will attempt to displace, or deconstruct, the ‘androcentric reconstructions of ... Christianity’s origins that marginalize or eliminate women and other non persons from the historical record’ (Fiorenza. 1992. P.93). This will allow me to show how history has managed to marginalise female characters, in this case Mary Magdalene, in order to suppress female power within Christianity (Fiorenza. 1992. P.96). In the absence of the suppressive patriarchal structures (defined as part of ‘a pyramidal system and hierarchical structure of society and church’ which enforces oppression based on men’s domination of women) it will then be possible to extract consistencies which various androcentric institutions have not been able to remove (Fiorenza. 1984. P.5). This creates a space in which to reconstruct a Mary Magdalene, from a feminist liberation perspective, who can act as a leadership figure for women today.
This approach challenges the traditional, patriarchal, ‘universal-objectivist preconceptions of academic theology’ (Fiorenza. 1992. P.44) which continue to dominate the world of Biblical studies today (Shaberg. 2004). The androcentric discipline of Biblical Studies is evident in the literature, where there is a clear distinction between the content of mainstream biblical studies commentaries, which hardly mention women as more than a narrative tool, and the feminist companions and Mary Magdalene specific sources which not only view women centrally but also question the role of women in the Christian tradition. To remain objective and value-free, as traditional theology does, abstains its support from women’s liberation and therefore advocates the passive continuation of patriarchal oppression. As theology should always be engaged with the oppressed, to act on their behalf involves partiality – stated allegiance to an explicit advocacy position (Fiorenza. 1992). A historical, feminist reconstruction of Mary Magdalene is partial because it advocates the liberation of oppressed women. For this reason, when displacing patriarchal structures and extracting a feminist reading of Mary Magdalene’s role within the Christian tradition, there is no claim to historical accuracy. The historical Mary Magdalene has been far too conflated and distorted to be retrieved. This means that it is neither possible, nor beneficial, to attempt to do so. Instead my central commitment is to provide the basis for a reconstruction of the role of Mary Magdalene that rings true for many women, around the world, who share in her struggle to resist patriarchal oppression.
My first study of Mary Magdalene is in the canonical gospels. Although there are some discrepancies between how the different gospels present Mary Magdalene’s role, their frameworks are very similar (De Boer. 2004). Mary Magdalene is present at the crucifixion and has been a follower of Jesus from his early ministry. She witnesses Jesus’ burial and goes back to the tomb to find it empty. She is then given the information (by various sources) that Jesus has been resurrected and is charged with telling the other disciples what she knows. Mary Magdalene is therefore indisputably a follower of Jesus who plays an important role in the resurrection scenes. It is interesting that unanimously, in all four gospels, the writers disrupt what could have been a very neat, heavily androcentric typology of the people who surrounded Jesus in order to include her, especially when she is all but ignored elsewhere. This seemingly contradictory nature of her role is what is most striking when looking at Mary Magdalene in the canonical gospels. She plays a vital and prominent role in the resurrection scenes which contrasts with her absence in the rest of the gospels. Despite her importance in this respect, Mary Magdalene is dismissed in many ways as a minor character (both in the gospels and in interpretations of them since).
Reasons for such a contradiction may be numerous; however, the patriarchal early church and canonical authors themselves, as well as the patriarchal Hebrew society, appear to have played an influential role. This would suggest, as Shaberg (2004) does, that Mary Magdalene’s importance in early Christianity has been diminished or written out for patriarchal purposes. The problematic and seemingly random inclusion of Mary Magdalene’s role in the resurrection story suggests that she was too well known and too important within early Christianity to be completely missed or written out, as people would have expected her to have been included. However, owing to the patriarchal society in which she lived and the canonical gospels were written, they have tried to lessen her ‘stature ... of the highest order of magnitude’ by being the first to see Jesus after his death (Bourgeault. 2010. P.15). Her surprising and continual female presence, in an androcentric cast, is her most basic demonstration of female resistance.
Mary Magdalene is almost invisible in all the canonical gospels except for the resurrection scenes. Only in Luke is she mentioned before Jesus’ crucifixion. However, even in Luke 8:2 her early appearance does nothing to increase her authority. We are introduced to Mary Magdalene as having ‘been healed of evil Spirits and diseases. Mary (who was called Magdalene), from whom seven demons had been cast out’ is among a group of cured female disciples. This could be a way of undermining Mary Magdalene’s loyalty as a follower of Jesus, as it could be argued that she followed him because she was indebted rather than because of faith or loyalty. It also sets her, and the other female disciples, apart from the male disciples and the Twelve who have no such debt and so appear to carry more authority when performing the same role. Similarly, it suggests the susceptibility of women to demons and it suggests former impiety – and so female inferiority – to men who appear strong enough to resist such sinful behaviour (Miller. 2009).
In the Johannine account of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene asks someone she thinks is a gardener what they have done with her Lord. Some critics have argued that this was written to make her look like less of a believer and/or a simpleton: either she never believed Jesus’ teachings or she is not capable of understanding what’s going on. As Miller (2009) argues, it seems unlikely that she does not believe Jesus’ teachings as she is distraught at the loss of someone she calls her ‘Lord’. It is suggested instead that she is a ‘pious simpleton’ who cannot grasp the situation, unlike the more intelligent, spiritual male disciples, which downplays her authority and women’s authority in general. Similarly, Mary Magdalene receives important information in the canonical gospels. She does not deduce this information herself, however, by witnessing the empty tomb, neither does she act on it personally. Instead, she is told the information by men – Jesus, the guards, an angel or a young man in white – and must pass it on to men: Simon Peter, the disciples. Even though she is one of the only women not to be named in relation to a man (she is named in relation to her town Magdala), which gives the impression that she is an independent woman, she is still dependent on men for her information (Shaberg. 2004) and spiritual awakening (Miller. 2009). This appears to reinforce women’s need for men. It insinuates that women cannot further their spiritual journey and learning without the help of men, which prohibits women from taking up any roles of authority or leadership (Miller. 2009).
Another way in which Mary Magdalene’s authority in the resurrection scenes is diminished is by presenting her as untrustworthy. In early Hebrew society, when the canonical gospels were written, ‘women were regarded as worthless witness’ (Wright. 2001. P.219). If we were to take the shorter ending of Mark, ending at Mark 16:8, the women are depicted as too terrified to do anything with the information they acquire from the man in white in Jesus’ tomb. However, as many others believe, it seems likely that the real ending to Mark is missing (Wright. 2001). It seems far more likely that ‘he wrote a conclusion, in which the women spoke to the disciples’ (Wright. 2001. P.224). I am therefore going to use the longer ending of Mark (Mark 16.9–20), which includes Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, as he does in John 20:11 and Matthew 28:19. In this ending, Mary Magdalene overcomes her fear to tell Jesus’ companions what she has seen. However, they do not believe her. This is also the case in Luke, where all the disciples, apart from Peter, disbelieve what the women tell them (Luke 24:11). Mary Magdalene and the other women’s testimonies fall on deaf ears because they are women and untrustworthy, as was the case in the wider social context. Mark’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene’s role may have been influenced by external, societal, patriarchal structures which controlled women by suggesting that they were intrinsically unreliable. In either case, it appears that Mary Magdalene’s role in the canonical gospels reflects various sources of opposition to women in leadership roles, by dubbing all women as untrustworthy.
Mary Magdalene’s role in the canonical gospels can also be compared to Peter’s, again highlighting women’s inferiority to men in the eyes of the Church. Both overcome their fear in the gospels to play important roles in the continuation of Christianity after Jesus’ death. In Matthew, and especially Mark, Mary Magdalene is described as being terrified at finding the tomb empty, which presents women as fragile and weak. She overcomes this fear in Mark’s longer ending, however, to tell the disciples what Jesus has told her. Similarly, Peter denies Jesus three times through fear but manages to overcome his trepidation to become the rock on which the Church was built. This represents Peter as strong and resilient. Despite the similarities in their roles, later interpretations have not acknowledged the comparably praiseworthy role of Mary: ‘the Holy week liturgies tell and re-tell the story of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, while the steady, unwavering witness of Magdalene is not even noticed’ (Bourgeault. 2004. P.16). There is one glaring difference between Peter and Mary Magdalene’s stories which may explain this discrepancy: Peter and the men have positions of authority and leadership. Mary Magdalene and the other women were not trusted to take on such a role by the canonical writers, ecclesiastical institutions or wider society.
Many exegetes even argue that Mary Magdalene and the other female followers of Jesus were not disciples. This removes the possibility of Mary Magdalene holding any role of authority among the male followers, even if she did have some authority over the women and the other non-disciple followers of Jesus. In either case, her authority and importance became limited, in many cases because of her gender. Many theologians and biblical scholars have used gender to make a distinction between Jesus’ disciples and the rest of his followers. Tom Wright (2001), for example, explicitly separates the group of women who follow Jesus from what he believes are the all-male disciples. This follows the neat typology of the all-male Twelve and the societal restrictions on female authority at the time. However, as the aim of this essay is to provide a creative, re-imagined representation of Mary Magdalene to encourage women to fight against structures like these that reinforce male domination, it is important to view Jesus’ disciples as inclusive of both men and women. Fiorenza (1992) calls this the ‘discipleship of equals’, which creates a platform on which to rebuild Mary Magdalene as an authoritative disciple of Jesus with some leadership qualities. A creative approach to the subject of female disciples, who serve and follow Jesus as their male counterparts do, might suggest that Mary Magdalene and the other women disciples have broken down social barriers. Once again, although – historically – women may not have been able to be disciples, for the purposes of this feminist historical reconstruction of the canonical gospels, we should assume that they were.
This view would fit well with the idea of Jesus as a socially revolutionary figure, and there is reasonable evidence of women as disciples within the canonical gospels once certain patriarchal structures have been removed. I am going to use Mark as my primary source to argue that women were included as disciples, because he writes extensively about what it is to be a disciple. Markean discipleship is defined by ‘following’ and ‘serving’ (Kinukawa. 2001). Defining discipleship as such not only creates the possibility that women were disciples, but means that the women who followed Jesus in many ways exemplified discipleship (De Boer. 2004). We have been told that the women who watched the crucifixion had been following Jesus since the beginning of his ministry: ‘Some women were there, looking on from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joseph, and Salome. They had followed Jesus while he was in Galilee and had helped him’ (Mark 15:40–41). Mark writes about Jesus’ preaching in Galilee all the way back in 1:35, which suggests that from then on we should visualise these women as part of Jesus’ following (De Boer. 2004). Mark also tells us that these women had ‘helped’ Jesus, or in other words ‘served’ him. Serving was important for all disciples and ‘Jesus teaches that disciples must serve one another’ (Phillips. 2001. P.227), which counters the argument that that women ‘helped’ and ‘served’ because that was their gender role at the time (De Boer. 2004). However, despite the textual evidence that women did fulfil discipleship roles, ‘almost all of their interaction and conversations with Jesus are invisible’ (Kinukawa. 2001. P.175). This is probably due to the ‘androcentrically biased’ voice of Mark and the other canonical authors who may have dismissed female-based interactions as intrinsically less important (Kinukawa. 2001. P.175).
Mary Magdalene is presented not just as a disciple, but as a disciple who holds a privileged position over many female and male disciples. She is granted this elevated status thanks to her pupil–teacher relationship with Jesus. It was a primary role of all disciples to learn from Jesus through their proximity to him, and we can see that Mary Magdalene was close to Jesus, perhaps closer than most of the other disciples. In John 19:25, Mary Magdalene is actually next to the cross with Jesus’ family and she receives a private vision from Jesus. She is distraught at Jesus’ death, so much so that certain exegetes believe she is unable to recognise him when he first appears to her. In response to this, Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by her name, to which she responds ‘Rabboni’, the Hebrew word for teacher (Bourgeault. 2010). John the Baptist also calls Jesus ‘Rabbi’ in the Gospel of John. This relationship is then exhibited throughout Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene. For example, when she grasps Jesus, he responds ‘Do not hold on to me’ (John 20:17). Of course, there are some exegetes who say that this is so that Mary Magdalene cannot make him impure; however, it seems far more likely that – even in death – Jesus is teaching Mary. He’s instructing her that he is ascending to the Father and so ‘Mary needs to hear that, after Jesus’ appearances, faith, in the absence of physical contact, is the only important thing’ (Kieffer. 2001. P.238). This is indeed an appropriate lesson for Mary Magdalene, who is obviously distraught about the physical loss of her Lord.
Mary Magdalene is often given the prestigious title of ‘apostle to the apostles’ in the canonical gospels. She spreads the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the Twelve who continue to spread the message around the world. Sometimes Mary Magdalene performs this role individually and sometimes she is accompanied by other named women. However, in all the gospels this role is carried out uniquely by women. This is a role that Mary Magdalene and the other named women are charged with despite the view, as discussed, that women are untrustworthy and weak. De Boer (2004) likens Mary Magdalene’s role of ‘apostle to the apostles’ to ‘The Parable of the Shepherd’ in John 10:13, where Jesus likens his relationship to his followers to a shepherd’s to his flock. In ‘The Parable of the Shepherd’ the shepherd calls his flock by name, they recognise his voice and they follow him. In John 20.16 Jesus calls Mary by her name, which prompts her to recognise him and to be able to continue to follow him after his death in an apostolic role. The importance of being ‘called’ by Jesus has been likened by Augustine to the writing of names in heaven in Luke 10:20 (Edwards. 2004. P.105). It is also possible to compare the calling of Mary to the passage in Mark 3:13–19 where Jesus goes up a hill to call his apostles. It is here that Jesus charges the twelve apostles with their evangelical mission. In the same way, when Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name in John, he charges her with her mission as ‘apostle to the apostles’. This provides Mary Magdalene with privileged information and a position of power. Mary Magdalene is ‘not only the first witness to the resurrection, but the first to announce it publicly. In two of the four gospels this is a charge to which she is specifically commissioned by Jesus himself’ (Bourgeault. 2010. P.10). For a period of time in all four canonical gospels Mary Magdalene is better informed than the remaining eleven male disciples.
It is possible to make Mary Magdalene’s representation in the canonical gospels the entire focus of this work. However, to represent her versatility, I have picked out some key aspects of her role in the canonical gospels to compare with my second source, the Gnostic the Gospel of Mary. This is to show that her character overcomes patriarchal obstacles to retain specific roles in other traditions too. It is clear that the Gospel of Mary was written in awareness of the canonical gospels, because it mirrors many of Jesus’ sayings in those texts (Tuckett. 2007). This makes their differences appear purposeful. We move from a text in which her prominence is suppressed up until the resurrection scenes, to a text where she is seemingly the most important character. It appears therefore that what has changed in these representations of Mary Magdalene is the tradition within which she is placed. Mary Magdalene, as portrayed within this Gnostic tradition ‘is prominent, exists in a textual world of androcentric language and sexist ideology, speaks boldly, plays a leadership role vis a vis the male disciples, is a visionary, is praised for her superior understanding, is identified as the intimate companion of Jesus, is opposed by and in open conflict with one or more of the male disciples, and is defended’ (Shaberg. 2004. P.168). The Gnostic Mary Magdalene does not escape patriarchal oppressors; however, Mary Magdalene’s resistance and power are more openly presented and questioned. Through a contrast and comparison of how these texts portray Mary Magdalene, using the same themes in two Christian traditions, it will be possible to show that her continual authority as a disciple and apostle can be reinterpreted in new contexts.
I am using the credible and award-winning translation of the Coptic Gospel of Mary by Pasquier found in De Boer (2004). However, the original text dates back to the beginning of the fifth century or the end of the fourth (De Boer. 2004) and is a Coptic text which contains three, incomplete manuscripts. It is the ‘view of the great majority of commentators today’ that the Mary of the Gospel of Mary is Mary Magdalene, despite the wealth of other Marys that were important in Jesus’ life (Tuckett. 2007. P.15). I have chosen to focus on the Gospel of Mary, over other Gnostic texts of the same period, for a couple of reasons. First, it can be argued that the Gospel of Mary is the only Christian text to be named after a historical woman (De Boer. 2004). This is pertinent in terms of the prominence of Mary Magdalene’s role as a woman within early Christianity. Second, the Gospel of Mary includes extensive dialogues between Mary Magdalene and Jesus and outlines her role within this particular Gnostic tradition. It is therefore the clearest gospel in which to study Mary Magdalene’s role. Of course, some scholars reject ‘Gnostic’ and ‘Gnosticism’ as ‘umbrella terms’ (Shaberg. 2004. P.123) used to describe different, varied and complex early Christian traditions that fail to represent a ‘unified phenomenon’ (Shaberg. 2004. P.122). In using it here I do not want to assert that Mary Magdalene is presented this way in all the ‘Gnostic’ traditions (although she does play an important role in many other ‘Gnostic’ texts). Instead, I take the Gospel of Mary as an individual case and use the term ‘Gnostic’, for want of a better word, to describe the specific tradition in which it is set.
Mary Magdalene’s authority is more explicit in the Gospel of Mary than in the canonical gospels. It is clear that she is not just one among the disciples but is of elevated rank, which suggests ‘a certain deference and respect for her’ (LeLoup. 2002. P.99). She ‘has been given a voice that is powerful, insistent and courageous’ (Shaberg. 2004. P.141), which she uses to address the other disciples – who are shaking and grieving – from a position of strength. Jesus has taught Mary privately, even after his death, through private visions which give her the authority to talk boldly about the weaknesses of her fellow disciples. She tells them that their sadness and doubt because of the death of Jesus comes from a indecision and hesitation ‘that weakens and destroys faith’ (LeLoup. 2002. P.99). This rebuke is in stark contrast to her representation in the Gospel of John where some commentators argue that she forgets Jesus’ teaching of the resurrection, leading her to mistake Jesus for a gardener. Similarly, her lack of understanding of Jesus’ teaching in John, leads Mary Magdalene to be so sad about Jesus’ death that she is physically distressed, much like the body of disciples in the Gospel of Mary. It is interesting that the same flaws and human failings that Mary Magdalene is criticised for in the canonical gospels are the ones she has risen above in the Gospel of Mary. Perhaps this contradiction in Mary Magdalene’s status represents the different beliefs of early ‘mainstream’ Christianity and this particular Gnostic group.
In the Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene is accepted as a disciple of Jesus in contrast to the canonical gospel’s ambiguity in regards to female disciples. In the Gospel of Mary 9:14 she refers to the disciples as ‘her brothers (and sisters)’. This suggests that she is an equal disciple to her brothers, but also suggests that there are other female disciples. Similarly, in 9:18–20 Mary Magdalene uses the pronoun ‘us’: ‘Rather let us praise his greatness, because he prepared us. He has made us (true) Human Beings.’ This inclusive statement suggests that there is a general equality among the disciples. And Mary Magdalene is not the only one who considers herself a disciple, even her most vocal critic – Peter – calls her ‘Sister’ (10:1). We can therefore present Mary as a prominent and well-known disciple in this tradition.
In both the canonical gospels and the Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene’s extra knowledge is imparted to her via a personal vision of Jesus. Shaberg (2004) recognises that the vision in the Gospel of Mary is definitely related to the ‘tradition of post-resurrection appearance’ in John 20:18 (Shaberg. 2004. P.173). However, in both cases, Mary Magdalene is provided, ahead of the other disciples, with vital information which she is willing, or instructed, to share with her brothers (and sisters). Mary talks about her vision with a confidence that shows her spiritual maturity because she has knowledge that the others do not (LeLoup. 2002). In the Gospel of Mary the fact that she is even more spiritually advanced than Peter seems to be common knowledge. Peter in 10:4 says to Mary Magdalene: ‘Tell us the words of the Saviour which you remember, the things that you know and we do not, nor have we heard them.’ And Mary Magdalene acknowledges this superior knowledge: ‘What is hidden from you I shall tell you’ (10:8).
In the Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene ‘is the intimate friend of Yeshua, and the initiate who transmits his most subtle teachings’ (LeLoup. 2002. P.7). Again, Mary Magdalene is the first to witness the resurrection which leads John to call her the founder of Christianity long before Paul receives his vision on the road to Damascus (LeLoup. 2002). The physical grasping of Jesus by Mary Magdalene in the canonical gospels implies proximity in life, but this relationship is made more explicit in the Gospel of Mary. We are told that the reason that Mary Magdalene possesses superior information is because of her close, personal relationship with Jesus. Levi, a prominent disciple of Jesus, talks of how ‘the Saviour knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us’ (18:13). Even Peter, Mary Magdalene’s adversary, admits that, although he may not have loved her more than the male disciples, the Saviour loved her more than the other women (10:1–4). It seems that the close relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene that is suggested in the canonical gospels is confirmed in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary.
Once again, their proximity lends itself to a pupil–teacher relationship like that identified in John. Cementing her role as an intermediary between Jesus and the other disciples (LeLoup. 2002), the Gospel of Mary provides evidence of personal visions and dialogues between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Bourgeault (2010) identifies this teaching method as ‘sohbet’, which means spiritual dialogue. We see this teaching style in action at the beginning of the gospel where Jesus is involved in an active dialogue with a group of disciples including Peter. Then we see it again in the vision that Mary Magdalene receives. Jesus teaches the disciples about impermanence, that nothing exists on its own and that ‘ignorance of impermanence generates illusions, attachments, and therefore suffering’ (LeLoup. 2002. P.45). It appears, however, that Mary Magdalene is the only one who has fully grasped this teaching in the gospel. She has managed to apply Jesus’ teachings to her life unlike the grieving disciples. ‘[Mary Magdalene], in her confident and passionate abiding with the Presence of the Teacher, becomes simple in this sense, for she practises and embodies his teachings’ (LeLoup. 2002. P.108). Mary Magdalene’s inner peace in this passage is proof that she is an enlightened character who physically manifests Jesus’ teaching. She has become the full, completed human being that she urges her fellow disciples to work towards. She has reached this status through a deeper, fuller understanding of Jesus’ teachings which she has gained through one-to-one teaching from Jesus himself. Again, it appears that Mary Magdalene’s relationship with her ‘Rabboni’ in John has been explored further in the Gospel of Mary.
It is via this enlightened status and fuller understanding that she is able to fulfil her role as an apostle ‘par excellence’ (Bourgeault. 2010. P.56) in the Gospel of Mary. In fact, Tuckett (2007) suggests that Mary Magdalene represents ‘the archetypal character of the true preacher of the gospel’ (P.369). I have touched upon Mary Magdalene as the apostle to the apostles in the canonical gospels, but in the Gospel of Mary she holds an apostolic leadership role. Through her superior knowledge she is able to turn the hearts of the disciples inwards so that they can fully grasp the Saviour’s teachings and she encourages them to go on to preach the word of the Saviour because he has prepared them as true human beings (9:13–22) (Pagels. 1979). She preaches the word of the Saviour even to the other prominent male Apostles such as Peter, Andrew and Levi. Bourgeault (2010) calls Mary Magdalene the ‘first among the apostles’ (Bourgeault. 2010. P.56) in the Gospel of Mary, not just chronologically but also through her ability to be the only one to grasp Jesus’ most difficult teachings. She expands this idea through a comparison of the Gospel of Mary with the book of Acts. According to her, both take place after Jesus’ ascension and both focus on the calling of the apostles. However, the difference is that in Acts, the orthodox version, the principal players are Peter and Paul, and in the Gospel of Mary, a text rejected by the political Bible, it is Mary herself. Of course, as in the canonical gospels, you could argue that in the Gospel of Mary she is an apostle sent only to the other apostles (Shaberg. 2004. P.184). But there is no proof that Mary Magdalene did not go on to preach the word of God after the time constraints of this gospel. Pagels (1979) argues that, once Mary Magdalene has been vindicated, she ‘joins the other apostles as they go out to preach’ (P.13). And even if this was not the case, it doesn’t make her any less important in the transmission of Jesus’ teachings to the rest of the world. Without Mary Magdalene as the apostle to the apostles, and her fuller understanding of Jesus’ teachings, the other disciples would not have been able – or as encouraged – to go forth.
Mary Magdalene’s leadership role as a disciple and an apostle is openly challenged in the Gospel of Mary by both Peter and Andrew. Once again her role can be contrasted with Peter’s, but in the Gnostic gospel the conflict is more explicit. The more overt contention between Mary Magdalene and Peter in the Gospel of Mary could be representative of a dispute between the historical Mary Magdalene and Peter, whose misogyny and mistrust of women is well documented (Tuckett. 2007). They could also have been symbolic representatives of the different sexes in arguments about women’s leadership that were ongoing in the early church (Tuckett. 2007).
Both Peter and Andrew dispute the claim that Jesus would have chosen a woman over a man to receive privileged information. Peter argues this on the grounds that it is unthinkable that Jesus would teach a woman privately. ‘After all, he did not speak with a woman apart from us and not openly. Are we to turn and all listen to her? Has he chosen her above us?’ (17:18-22). It would have been scandalous in Hebrew society for a man not only to teach a woman but to do it privately. However, Peter is not the only adversary of Mary Magdalene. Andrew too disbelieves Mary’s story but this time on the grounds of its content: ‘I at least do not believe that the Saviour said this for these teachings seem to be according to another train of thought’ (17:13). However, this is an odd criticism considering that Mary Magdalene is repeating themes explored in other Gnostic and biblical texts. Shaberg (2004) argues that the content-related dismissal of Mary Magdalene’s testimony is a cover-up of Andrew’s distrust of Mary Magdalene as a woman. The implicit criticisms of Mary Magdalene by Andrew are then made explicit by Peter (Shaberg. 2004). Peter and Andrew reject Mary Magdalene’s leadership role in favour of male dominance in an attempt to reinforce women’s reliance on men for their enlightenment as opposed to the other way around (Shaberg. 2004).
Levi then counters Andrew and Peter’s criticisms by defending Mary Magdalene’s claim for leadership. He rebukes Peter and Andrew by asking ‘Who are you indeed to reject her. Surely, the Saviour knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us’ (18:11–15). Mary Magdalene’s persistence in this gospel and Levi’s attacks on Peter and Andrew’s androcentrism show her resistance to the patriarchal early church. The Gospel of Mary and the debates surrounding her suitability for leadership have ‘been used as part of the evidence that Mary Magdalene exercised a significant leadership role in the early church’ (Tuckett. 2007. P.365). The views presented in the Gospel of Mary supporting such female leadership may well be a contributing factor in its rejection from the New Testament Bible. It is another way that the ‘heretical’, Gnostic texts challenged ‘the leaders of the orthodox community, who regarded Peter as their spokesman’. Mary Magdalene’s leadership role in the Gospel of Mary is another way in which Mary Magdalene has challenged the patriarchy of the church. This reading of Mary Magdalene shows her still being manipulated because of her gender, albeit for a reason potentially encouraging for feminist biblical scholars. This manipulation of Mary Magdalene due to her gender, to serve the interests of a specific Christian tradition, is also explored in the medieval representation of Mary Magdalene.
The third and final source in this essay provides us with the most overt manipulation of the character of Mary Magdalene in the medieval era and, more specifically, in the medieval legends based around her. It’s these vivid, dramatic stories, such as Jacobus de Vorigine’s The Golden Legend, arguably the most dominant (Reames. 2003), that have fuelled the endless art works, films and novels about her as the penitent whore or Jesus’ lover. The medieval Mary Magdalene conflates different biblical Marys and other female characters from within Christianity to compose her character anew. The main three characters conflated with Mary Magdalene are Mary of Bethany (John 11:1), who’s the sister of Martha and the deceased Lazarus; the woman who anoints Jesus with the alabaster jar in Mark 14:3–9 (there could also be conflation with other anointing stories such as Mark 12:1–8); and the unnamed sinner from the city in Luke 7:36–50 who wets Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, kisses them, anoints them and is forgiven by Jesus (Shaberg. 2004). Validation of the conflation of these three characters with Mary Magdalene dates back to Pope Gregory the Great in 591, who was respected and regarded as trustworthy in the Middle Ages (Winkett. 2002). He declared these woman to be one and the same (Reames. 2003). There is then further conflation of Mary Magdalene with characters such as the prostitute Mary of Egypt who became a hermit in the wilderness to repent for her sins; the adulterer saved from stoning by Jesus (John 8:1–11); and the woman by the well in Samaria who had five husbands behind her in John 4 (Winkett. 2002). This blatant and deliberate conflation of characters by those trying to fill in the gaps of Mary Magdalene’s crucial but ambiguous role in the canonical gospels (Shaberg. 2004) is pertinent because it shows that aspects of Mary Magdalene’s character have been chosen deliberately to present her in certain ways. Of course, some aspects of her representation in sources such as The Golden Legend have been chosen for dramatic effect, as a medieval audience would have expected a good story. Other aspects, however, appear to have been included to suit a purpose, either for the medieval church or for society more generally. As has been the case so far, Mary Magdalene is still represented as a devoted, learned disciple who has a close relationship with Jesus, who continued his work as an apostle, and who is manipulated through her gender, but now she has become an almost ‘completely fictitious character’ (Winkett. 2002. P.2) in the medieval imagination. Again, it may seem as if many elements of the medieval St Mary Magdalene have been omitted; however, I have attempted to extract elements of her re-interpretation that effectively demonstrate her in roles that are evident in the other representations.
As in the canonical gospels and the Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene is a devoted disciple who enjoys a close relationship with Jesus. In The Golden Legend, as in Luke, Jesus casts seven demons out of her. These seven sins, which are unspecified in the Bible, are here attributed to sexual sin and prostitution. This is not surprising given the medieval church’s fear of female sexuality and the perceived link between female weakness and sexual sin. This is not explicit in either of the other sources; however, as explained later, this link between woman and sexual sin reflects the church and society in the medieval period. In Luke’s gospel she is so indebted to Jesus for curing her that she follows him, suggesting that perhaps her role as a devoted disciple is merely due to gratitude and not devotion or faith. However, the medieval legends openly acknowledge Mary Magdalene’s ‘ardent love’ for Jesus, which exemplifies the close relationship she enjoys with Jesus. This the reason that he will appear to Mary Magdalene as first witness of the resurrection (Garth. 1950. P.74). ‘Their love for one another is continually stressed’ (Garth. 1950. P.68) and ‘[t]his relationship between Mary Magdalene and her Lord is typical of the medieval idea of her. Not only does she go to extremes more often and more quickly than others but she always surpasses them, even in her intimacy with the Lord’ (Garth.1950. P.74). The physical proximity of Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the canonical gospels, when she grasps and worships him, is also a theme in the medieval legends. Because of ‘her loving care for Christ’s body when she washed His feet and went to anoint his body after death, she was often held up as a model of active charity’ (Reames. 2003. P.52).
Mary Magdalene is not just a devoted disciple of Jesus but, as in the Gospel of Mary and the canonical gospels, she is a learned one. She is presented in this way to such an extent that she comes to be presented as an example of the contemplative life, which was seen by most medieval writers, including St Gregory, as being more valuable than an active life because it cannot be ended by death (Garth. 1950). This is reminiscent of the Gospel of Mary where she teaches the other disciples that they will no longer fear death if they can fully grasp the Saviour’s teachings of impermanence and that a fuller understanding leads to enlightenment and union with God. In the medieval legends this is demonstrated through the story conflating Mary Magdalene with Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus (Luke 10:38–42), where Mary and her sister Martha receive Jesus in their home. Martha rushes around preparing the meal, but Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens. When Martha rebukes her sister for not helping her, Jesus says that Mary has chosen ‘the right thing’ (Luke 10: 42). This is then given reality in The Golden Legend when, after her time preaching in France, Mary Magdalene retires to the wilderness for thirty years of ‘vigil, prayer, fasting and heavenly contemplation’ like Mary of Egypt (Garth. 1950. P.54). Mary Magdalene’s emphasis on learning from Jesus as she follows him as a disciple will then allow her to be trusted enough by Peter, later in the story, to sail to France and convert not only the pagans she finds there but also the King and Queen of Marseille.
Mary Magdalene is still regarded as an important apostle in the medieval legends; this is perhaps her most explicit apostolic role. She remains the ‘apostle to the apostles’, as in the canonical gospels, but this role is expanded. This aspect of the legends is often called the ‘vita apostolica’ (Shaberg. 2004) and is Mary Magdalene’s main role in her medieval representation. After Jesus’ ascension, Peter, the leader of the church, sends Mary Magdalene and others to Provence. With God’s grace they survive a storm and land on the south coast of France and take shelter under a pagan temple. Seeing the people worshipping at the temple she starts to preach to them and converts them to Christianity. This begins a long career for Mary Magdalene evangelising Christianity in France (Shaberg. 2004). The Acta Santorum, a group of texts examining the lives of saints, calls her ‘the most evangelical woman, the most fervent lover, the Apostle to the Apostles’ (Garth. 1950. P.98). Mary Magdalene often performs miracles in medieval literature in order to prove her teachings and validate what she is preaching: for example, she facilitates the King and Queen of Marseille in having a baby and brings the Queen back to life after she dies in childbirth. She also shows the Queen what her husband sees when he attends a pilgrimage with Peter. She is an effective apostle because, through her penitence (she is regarded as at the patron saint of sinners), and with reference to her own conversion, she is able to urge people to follow her lead and convert to the teachings that converted her (Garth. 1950).
It has already been noted that Mary Magdalene’s character has been manipulated by her conflation with other women and through her being deemed a sinner and a prostitute. And as in all representations of her so far, she has been defined and oppressed by her gender in medieval literature. Her role as a repentant sinner reinforces the medieval Catholic Church’s oppression of female sexuality. The medieval legends sometimes attribute her downfall into prostitution to the loss of her husband. In The Golden Legend Mary Magdalene is married to John the Apostle who is called away by Jesus. Indignant at the loss of her husband, Mary Magdalene begins a life of sin and prostitution (Garth. 1950). This demonstrates the need for a woman to be ‘controlled’ by her husband, reinforcing female submission in marriage. This subordination to men is continued in the legend when she is made subordinate to Peter. Peter, who is often contrasted with Mary Magdalene and is in opposition to her in the Gospel of Mary, is in a position of authority here. He sends her to France, she names him as her superior, and she sends the King of Marseille to him when he doubts her teachings. The King of Marseille’s conversion hinges partially on the word of a man because Mary Magdalene’s is not enough. Mary Magdalene’s submission to men in the medieval legends means that she ‘offers no real challenge to the hierarchy of the church, subordinating herself in the story to Peter and to Maximinus (who are not threatened by her), and living a life more contemplative than active’ (Shaberg. 2002. P.98). She offers no challenge to the authority of the church as a former sinner could have no such claim and she doesn’t openly challenge men. This is particularly interesting considering that she is found on the shores of France ‘preaching with her disciples’ (Reames. 2003. P.32), suggesting she holds a leadership role over others who are perhaps men and women, even if not over specific men.
The Mary Magdalene of medieval legends is conflated, created and ‘brought into existence by the powerful undertow of misogyny in Christianity, which associates women with the dangers and degradation of the flesh’ (Shaberg. 2002. P.80). She was deliberately conflated with Mary of Egypt, who was punished for her sins as a prostitute, and retired to the desert to repent; hence the vita eremitica aspect of the medieval legends (Reames. 2003). Her repentance is therefore never-ending. We can see how Mary Magdalene has been manipulated by the patriarchy of the church when we compare her, as many others have done, with the Virgin Mary. On the one hand we have Mary Magdalene, who has sinned but has repented, changed her ways and is penitent. On the other hand the Virgin Mary lives a virtuous, immaculate life. Because it is more difficult and unrealistic to live as the Virgin Mary did, Mary Magdalene is used to represent an alternative way to God. Both present examples of a good Christian life, be it virtuous or repentant (Garth. 1950), and both present images of female sexuality that did not threaten or scare the medieval church. Similarly, Abbot Odo of Cluny wrote in the 10th Century that Mary Magdalene, through her repentance and her help to women during her ministry of Jesus, rescued woman from the condemnation that Eve brought on them by her original sin (Winkett. 2002). The disobedience of Eve associates womankind with sexual sin and temptation, but suggests that neither need be feared as they have been remedied or neutralised by Mary Magdalene’s penitence (Winkett. 2002). ‘For men, there is reassurance here: you have nothing to fear from such a strong woman’ (Shaberg. 2004. P.98). She has been reconstructed to pose no threat to the authority of the church or to the medieval social order in which men control women.
Mary Magdalene is impossible to reconstruct as a historical figure from the representations explored in this essay. These representations suggest that she has been too distorted, conflated and manipulated to extract her real identity. We can, however, reconstruct a culturally and temporally relative Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene has been re-imagined throughout history to serve various patriarchal purposes. Through a feminist theology’s re-interpretation of Mary Magdalene, that is subjectively ‘true’ for women today, she can act as a figurehead for female liberation. ‘As in the medieval period, it seems Mary’s story is once again a popular place for thinking about religion, the church, women and men, and the body’ (Shaberg. 2006. P.152). Re-construction of Mary Magdalene is once again part of a ‘much larger discussion’ about society and women’s struggles for freedom against patriarchal oppression (Shaberg. 2006. P.152). A re-imagining of Mary Magdalene might present her as close and learned disciple to Jesus who was prominent among both his male and female disciples. Through her in-depth knowledge of his teachings she presumed a leadership role as a key Apostle, despite the open challenges from a patriarchal society and church. It is important not to simply disregard the patriarchal oppression that has surrounded Mary Magdalene, as it highlights her resistance and her struggle. Instead it should be used to encourage and motivate women to challenge the patriarchal barriers that have tried to suppress her voice. Mary Magdalene represents in many ways the struggle of women who are still oppressed by patriarchal societies and institutions. She is there in a character that can encourage their struggle for liberation as they follow her inspiring lead.
All biblical quotes taken from Holy Bible Good News Edition: Today’s English Version. 1976. The Bible Societies: Swindon.
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